It's spring and that means the start of hop growing season! Some of you might already grow hops and some of you might be thinking about growing hops. In this post, I'll be discussing raising hops at home. This isn't information based on some randomness that's been passed down in homebrew lore over the years or designed for commercial growers. This is all firsthand experience growing hops at home over many years and learning what works and what doesn't. Even if you weren't considering growing hops before, I hope by the time you finish reading this, you'll be inspired to give it a try.
First and foremost, you need sunlight. There is no substitute for sunlight. You NEED to have your hops in the sunniest part of the yard. This means southern exposure. If they aren't getting at least 10 hours of full sun, you won't be able to successfully grow hops. The more sun the better. 12-14 hours of sun will get you a really healthy plant. If you have access to a space outdoors that meets this criteria, you can grow hops.
Once you've found the perfect spot to grow your hops, you need to make an important decision; what hops to grow. I can only speak for Northern Hemisphere varieties here, but from my experience, the further south you go, the less likely it is you'll be able to successfully grow traditional noble varieties. I'm in Zone 7b of the American Southeast and tried growing Halluertau and Tettnang for several years but they never really took off. It's not that they didn't grow, they just never really thrived or produced a large amount of cones. Pests seem to flock to these plants more than the other varieties of hops I was growing. I had the same results with Willamette. On the flip side, I've had huge success growing Saaz, so go figure. The point is that you'll need to experiment with different varieties to see what thrives in your climate and soil. Check with other brewers in your area to see if they've grown hops. Ask what worked and what didn't. Unless you've got an area where you can grow up to 18ft (~5.5m), it would be a good idea to look for varieties that are candidates for "low trellis" or "dwarf trellis". These varieties can still grow up to 10ft or so (~3m) but that's much more manageable for the average person.
Now that you have some varieties in mind that you want to test out, the question is: crowns or rhizomes. What are they? A crown is a fully developed plant while a rhizome is a cutting of root stock. They have their pros and cons. Generally, I'd advise most people to start with crowns. Crowns are only sold by farmers directly to customers. Most crowns have been propagated in special programs to ensure they are disease and virus free. They tend to be heartier and generally give the grower a greater degree of success than rhizomes. Since crowns are an established plant, home growers also are more likely to see a hop yield in the first year of growth. The downside to crowns is that they're more expensive and harder to come by. I highly recommend Great Lakes Hops if you're looking to buy crowns. They have a large selection of varieties, the staff is super knowledgeable and helpful, and every single crown I've gotten from them has taken off. High Hops Hop Farms also carries crowns. I would generally steer people away from rhizomes. Rhizomes tend to be available around this time of year because hop farmers are doing maintenance on their fields and the rhizomes are the parts of the plant they're throwing out for one reason or another. There's no guarantee you're getting disease free root stock when you buy a rhizome. You also have no idea how long the rhizome has been out of the ground, since they usually pass from the farmer to several intermediaries before they reach you. That affects the vitality of the plant and your chances of being successful in growing it. The rhizome will spend the first year getting established, meaning there is a very low percentage chance for hop yield your first growing year. Rhizomes do have the benefit of being very cheap compared to crowns. If you're looking to grow on a whim, this certainly has a low barrier of entry. Rhizomes are also a good idea if you can get them from a farmer local to your area. You won't have to wait a season or two to figure out if growing that variety is going to work in your climate and soil conditions because someone has already done the work of selection for you. You also have a built in buddy to compare growing notes with to ensure the best possible yield.
So now that you have your hops and a spot all picked out, it's time to plant them. For your first year or two, I highly recommend you grow your hops in a container. I went over the how's of planting in a container in my fall hop guide, but let's talk about some of the why's. First is it allows you a bit more flexibility in finding the perfect spot to grow. Maybe your initial spot wasn't as sunny as you thought. Maybe you notice that the ground around the pot isn't draining as well as it could in that area. If you're in a pot, you can test multiple spots. Maybe the variety you chose isn't as hardy in your area as you'd like. It's more convenient to swap plants out of a container than trying to dig them out of the ground if they've become established.
How do you grow a plant that might be up to 18ft tall (or even up to 10ft for the dwarf trellis) in a container? Sure, you can run some twine up to a roof line or use some equally tall anchor point. I prefer a more elegant method that allows you to comply with almost any HOA or rental property rules; you grow them like a topiary.
What you're looking at are 7ft (~2.2m) garden stakes arranged in a pentagon. I anchor two support strings at different points around the outside of this pentagon and work the string up in a spiral. By the time each string has reached the top, I've traversed the circumference of the pot twice. If you do the math and you assume you only gain 6ft of height from the base of the pot (1ft of the stake is buried for support), each string will be approximately 13ft (~4m) long. Note that you will have to train the bines up the twine, otherwise, they'll just try and climb straight up. This is a pretty decent compact system that produces what looks like a cylindrical bush when the bine is fully mature. The shape is nice because it also acts like a chimney and allows air movement inside of the "can" you've formed, lowering the chances of mildew. You can see on the right what your topiary should look like when it's fully mature.
Once you have mastered the art of raising hops over a season or two, you can transplant the hops into the ground or use my fall hop maintenance guide to continue successful harvests from a container year after year.
So now that we have our hops planted, we need to talk about caring for them. Hops love water ... on the roots. I make this distinction for a reason. If you water your plants and get the leaves wet, it's more opportunity for mold and mildew to take hold. Water droplets can also form a lens and burn your leaves. Water your plants daily and water directly into the ground. Hops are also a little like cats in that they like water, but hate being wet, so make sure the soil has good drainage. I use a drip irrigation system on a water timer to make my life easier. If you don't have one, I'd water the pot till it floods. If it takes longer than a few minutes for that flood to drain through the soil, your drainage isn't good enough. If it does happen to rain on your hops, go out and give the plant a good shake after it's over. The less water sitting on your leaves, the better.
Hops also love fertilizer. Seriously, I'm not sure if it's even possible to over fertilize hops. I use a drip system with an inline fertilizer injector to feed mine because I am lazy. It's fine to just mix in fertilizer with your watering once a week. I will also go out on a very short bine here and say almost any weird coloration/spotting you see on your plant isn't (fill in blank), it's lack of fertilizer. Feed your hops and they'll love you back. Just remember, you need lots and lot nitrogen while the plants are growing and lots of phosphorus and potassium when the plants are blooming. Start out feeding them with a high N fertilizer and when you see the first signs of hop cones forming, it's time to move away from nitrogen rich fertilizers and onto phosphorus and potassium rich ones.
So now your hops are starting to take off, what else do you have to do to keep them healthy until harvest? This might seem counter intuitive, but I wouldn't necessarily allow the first couple of shoots that spring up to grow to maturity. These are typically "bull bines" and they're not really the best shoots to train. Bull bines are rigid but hollow in the middle and tend to snap easily. This makes them less durable and more difficult to train up a support line. Bull bines also tend to grow so fast that their leaf nodes are far apart. This is bad because these nodes are typically where side arms grow off from. Side arms provide a lot of hop cones. I'd advise you to wait until a bull bine is about 2ft (~0.6m) tall and then snip the growth tip. This will stop further development, but allow the leaves that have formed to feed the roots. If you immediately snip your bull bines down to ground level, you'll sap the energy reserves of the root ball. Wait until mid-April to the first week of May to select the bines you want to grow to full maturity. By this time, there should be plenty of daylight and you should have a few hardy, but pliable bines to choose from. These will grow slightly slower than the bull bines and produce more frequent leaf nodes. Train 1 to 2 bines per support string. Cut all other bines back to ground level once the chosen bines have reached about 3ft (~1m) and keep any future bines that pop up trimmed back to ground level.
I briefly mentioned that the biggest issue you'll face is meeting the nutritional needs of the hop plant, but how do you know what's a lack of nutrition and what's a disease? If your hops leaves turn yellow to brownish, you have a nutritional deficiency. Some of that might be natural. The leaves on the bottom of the plants will start to yellow as the bines grow taller and push the nutrients upwards. You'll want to strip these leaves off as the plant grows to help provide better airflow around the plant and discourage pests. Any other nutrient deficiency means you should change your fertilizer or increase application. You'd be best to consult your local garden center, botanical gardens, or university agricultural program for tips on what might be appropriate for your area and conditions. If you honestly think you might have mildew issues, consult my previous post on fall hops maintainence to know how to properly diagnose this condition. As for pests, I hardly see the need to use pesticides. Seriously, I know that sounds hard to believe, but it's true. I have a bird feeder nearby which attracts birds that help cut down on some bugs. I place any spider I find onto the hops in hopes they'll also prey upon any would be crop destroyers. This seems mostly sufficient to keep pests in check. I have noticed that pests tend to gravitate towards hops that don't thrive as much. I'm not sure if that means part of what helps the plant thrive tastes bad to the pests or if they thrive simply because they're left alone, but if you do notice pests, the first thing to do is try knocking them off. You can use a hose or gently shaking the plant to get the bugs to fall off. If your pest happens to be Japanese beetles, I would also snip off any leaf you saw them on. Japanese beetles seem to leave a scent to attract other beetles, so even if you remove the original bug, more will soon follow. If infestation continues, try applying an insecticide based on neem oil or an insecticidal soap containing sulphur. These are relatively safe and can be used right up until harvest. I'd really advise anyone to stay away from harsher chemicals. Even if they are "safe", would you really want the residue of whatever they leave behind to end up in your beer? That's entirely up to you, but my answer is "NO".
So that should get you from planting right up until you're close to harvest time. I'll do another post in the late summer to describe how to know when the hops are ready, how to process them for storage, etc. I hope this helps or inspires you to try your hand at hop growing. Please let me know if there's anything else I can do to help out my fellow hop growers!
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